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AMHSI Staff & Educators

Hanukkah and Heroism with Michael Sunshine

Chanukah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays.  It is a fun holiday celebrated specifically in the home by lighting the Channukah menorah, ideally placed outside the front door, with the delicious addition of latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). 

The light from the Channukah candles serves to remind those who see it of the miracle that occurred during the 2nd Temple period when the Macabees fought and defeated the Seleucid Greek Empire.  The smaller and weaker Macabee forces defeated the mighty and well-armed Seleucid soldiers.  Upon entering the Beit Hamikdash/Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews cleaned up the Temple and attempted to reinstate the Temple service.    They found only one cruse of oil to light the Menorah, enough for just one day.  It would take 8 days to produce pure oil under the watch of the Kohen Gadol/High Priest.  As the story continues, Gd performed a miracle and the single cruse of oil lasted for eight days.

It is puzzling, though, that the story of Channukah is memoralized by a miracle of oil, when it was the military revolt against the Seleucid army that saved the Jews.  Perhaps, then, instead of lighting a menorah, we should publicize the miracle of victory by leaning a sword and shield just outside the entrance to our homes.

To understand why we focus on the oil, and not military equipment, we need to understand why the Macabees revolted. 

Although requiring a more thorough study to comprehensively understand the Jewish opposition to Hellenism, even a brief analysis will enlighten us. 

In essence, it was a clash of civilizations and culture. 

The Seleucids were not interested in battling the Jews.  Continuing in the tradition of Alexander the Great, they wanted to spread Hellenistic culture.  As long as the people in the lands they controlled practiced Hellenism, they could live in peace.  It was the Jews, who upended the status-quo, and revolted. 

Greek culture is in any ways, the foundation of our modern Western culture.  It contributed greatly to humanity and the modern world and, therefore, we cannot, with one stroke, declare it void and evil.

Why, then, did they revolt and plunge the Land of Israel into decades of war?

While Hellenism has imbued in the world an appreciation of art, an intellectual study of philosophy, and a recognition of the physical strength and abilities of man, it is specifically the lens with which the Greeks understood them that contrasts greatly with Judaism, and ensured the revolt of the faithful Macabees.

Whereas the classic Greek drama is tragedy, the downfall and destruction of people, in contrast, the message of our Tanach/Bible, the stories of our ancestors, teach us about hope and rebirth. 

While Greek art focuses on beauty and the perfection of the human body and athletics attest to man's ability to defeat and conquer others, in opposition, Judaism places Gd at the center of our Universe and focuses on man's spirit and soul to create a world of kindness where we are tasked with taking care of others.  As Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein says, Judaism rejects the holiness of beauty and embraces the beauty of holiness. 

Greek philosophy probes the depth of existence and claims that nothing is beyond the understanding of the human mind.  While Judaism is also are concerned with the nature of Gd and the Universe,  we recognize the limitation of the human mind, accepting that some things are beyond our scope of understanding, and focus our efforts on how do I live a holy and godly life in this world, partaking in the Gd-given directive of creating a world of chessed and taking care of others.

It is precisely because of the reasons for the revolt that necessitated that the miracle be represented in oil and light, and not military gear.  The anti-Hellenists, the faithful Macabees, could not fathom a Jewish world that accepted the values of Hellenism while being forced to give up on their heritage.  It is precisely these ancient and historic values of Judaism and the Jewish people that is represented by the light of the Menorah.  The light of the burning of the pure olive oil fills the Temple and radiates out into the world.

At Alexander Muss High School in Israel, through our study of Jewish History, we engage in the Judaism vs Hellenism debate and challenge our students, and ourselves, to question and struggle with the question:  How do I enjoy the benefits of the world I live with the value of my heritage?   What is the balance that works for me?

As we celebrate Channukah this year, let us remember the Maccabees and their decision to fight for the spirit of our Jewish identity.  Let the light of the Channukah candles remind us of the light of the Menorah, shining out of the Temple, into the homes of the Jewish people, and throughout the world in which we live.